IN DEFENCE OF: THE ABYSS

Close Encounters of the Sub-Aquatic Kind

Dir: James Cameron

20th Century Fox, 1989, USA

Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn


Whilst this 1989 mega-budget underwater epic barely needs a staunch defence as such – it was fairly well-received during its initial run but garnered much more acclaim from its 1993 ‘Special Edition’ release which restored 30 minutes of extra footage and rectified the abrupt ending – it’s easy to see how the film has been slightly forgotten amid James Cameron’s numerous seismic influences on blockbuster cinema, pioneering of digital special-effects technology and his multi-billion dollar successes with Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). Even though the majority of Cameron’s films have had a considerable effect on pop-culture and cinema in general and despite him twice evading the notion of sequels being inferior to the original with both Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), The Abyss, as flawed as it may be, is still my personal favourite of his films. It also just might be the ‘ultimate Cameron movie’, as many others believe it to be.

The story employs many of Cameron’s fortes and thematic fascinations – science-fiction, human issues, tension, action, tough female characters, and aliens – and submerges them within another obsession of his: the deep sea. (Cameron himself would later visit the Titanic’s wreck site and even explore the deepest part of the ocean, the Marianas Trench). While patrolling off the Cuban coast, an American nuclear submarine mysteriously sinks on the ledge of an abyssal trench after coming into contact with an unseen force. The sub’s only hope is a team of blue-collar engineers that are stationed nearby on an experimental underwater oil-drilling platform led by roughneck foreman Virgil “Bud” Brigman (Harris). In addition to Bud’s estranged wife Lindsey (Mastrantonio) – who is also the architect of the rig – coming along to oversee the excursion, the crew is also required to accommodate a team of humourless Navy SEALs and their increasingly-unstable leader (Biehn) for a clandestine salvaging of the sub’s nuclear weaponry.

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One of Cameron’s biggest strengths as a director is that he has always excelled in generating action sequences that are genuinely thrilling (say what you want about Titanic, the entire sinking sequence remains a riveting spectacle of the highest order). In his films, the sequences function primarily to severely crank up the tension and, in doing so, often amount to a lot more than being bombastic set-pieces with no bearing on the narrative. In this aspect, The Abyss is no exception and boasts some of the most spectacular underwater action sequences ever filmed. The moment in which a hurricane batters the surface support ship causing the rig to be dragged towards the abyss and the chaos that ensues is still one of the most hair-raising sequences Cameron ever devised. The scene’s climactic moment in which Bud’s ringfinger – which is luckily wearing the wedding ring he recently retrieved from throwing into a toilet – becomes trapped in a mechanical door whilst the rig floods around him tops it off.

Despite these sequences and palpable tension throughout, at the centre of The Abyss is, as trite as it may sound, a story of love and reconciliation. (Ironically, Cameron and his producer/wife would split during the film’s making). Instead of a typical boy-meets-girl setup that Cameron would later use in Titanic, the focal couple in The Abyss are divorced and still resent each other. Bud and Lindsey have a history, but because of the current set of circumstances they are in, they must work together in order to survive. This culminates with Bud having to resuscitate a drowned Linsdey which sees Ed Harris plead, scream and cry at a deathly motionless Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio so intensely you would have thought that his being genuinely depended on it.

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That Bud, Lindsey, the drillers and the SEALs are trapped uncomfortably together in such cramped quarters is an obvious metaphor for what the film eventually proves to be getting at: in order to reconcile and co-exist peacefully, humanity must make sacrifices and put destruction and violence aside, just as the wondrous “NTI” (non-terrestrial intelligence) creatures demonstrate at the film’s end. The message is admittedly a little corny but you cannot fault it for meaning well and it’s not as if it comes out of nowhere or is as ham-fistedly delivered as some critics have tried to argue.

Harris’s and Mastrantonio’s central performances are terrific and they are ably supported by a cast of colourful and well-performed crew members. However, it is Michael Biehn’s career-best performance as the shaky Lieutenant Coffey that leaves the biggest impression. A moustachioed Biehn disappears into the role of the pressure-induced psychosis-suffering officer (so much so that it took me years to actually realise it was the same guy who played Kyle Reese!) who makes increasingly bad judgement calls as he gradually begins to crack. Allegedly, 20th Century Fox fought hard to get him an Oscar nomination; although they were successful, it most certainly would have been deserved.

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As the production proved, the logistical complexities of shooting an epic science-fiction thriller almost entirely underwater proved, quite unsurprisingly, to be a monumental task; it would later become known as one of the most physically and emotionally arduous productions ever (as the highly recommended making-of-documentary Under Pressure: The Making of the Abyss reveals). Filming required the cast and crew to become certified divers and even new scuba hardware such as helmets and underwater oxygen refilling stations to be developed to accommodate the production. Then there was the set itself: an abandoned nuclear reactor facility that was filled with 7 million gallons of water – the biggest underwater set ever constructed. Amongst other bizarre requirements of the production, several million tiny black beads and the world’s largest tarpaulin were brought in to cover the water’s surface and be hung over the set respectively so to submerge the water in an inky darkness adequate for the eerie ocean floor.

The creation of its world could well be The Abyss’s strongest point. The result of such a ridiculously extravagant set may seem a tad insane in the let’s-just-use-CGI business endemic in the blockbuster-making of today, but the extreme efforts certainly pay off when watching the film; it remains a masterclass in generating such a tangible sense of verisimilitude and is a testament to Cameron’s indefatigable ambition. Even with the knowledge of how the set was constructed, Cameron’s decision to shoot the film real-for-reel still places you hundreds of meters below the surface every time. Even when the aforementioned action sequences are not happening, the feelings of dread, claustrophobia, extreme pressure and fear of drowning are so unrelenting that it is near-impossible to not be completely immersed in the film’s world from the outset. One gets the feeling that acting was negligible given the circumstances that the actors were in.

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In addition (and contradiction, perhaps) to the accomplishments The Abyss boasted for its set design, it is of course notable for having made a quantum leap with digital special effects, particularly for the water tentacle sequence. In a sense, the computer-generated effects created for The Abyss were sort of a dry run as their success allowed Cameron to dabble with them much more extensively with the T-1000’s liquid metal effects in T2. This then paved the way for CGI’s subsequent and steady usurping of practical effects in the ‘90s and ‘00s blockbusters.

As great as I think The Abyss is, I must concede that it, of course, be an imperfect film and most likely not Cameron’s greatest overall. It must be said that as ground-breaking some of the special-effects were at the time, some of them do appear quite incongruously antiquated now, but that’s just the nature of cinematic progression. The film was shot over twenty-five years ago after all. Another thing is that even though most of the drillers and Navy SEALS are a very distinguished set of characters, some of the less prominent ones are pretty much interchangeable with one another meaning we care little about them when they inevitably perish (the same problem occurs with some of the marines in Aliens). I would have also settled for long shots of the majestic NTI creatures at the end; the close-ups reveal them look a little too much like regular Spielbergian aliens which is a tad underwhelming. My final gripe is just plain nit-picking but I’ve always found it to be quite hilarious that after correcting someone that the safety catch is still active on a machine-pistol, the otherwise memorable character of Cat (Leo Burmester) goes ahead and empties the entire clip at a submersible with a nuclear warhead strapped to it. As a miffed John Travolta reminds a similarly oblivious goon in Broken Arrow (1996): “Would you mind not shooting at the thermo-nuclear weapons, please?”

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But overall, I think that the intense levels of drama and action witnessed in The Abyss as well as the sense of wonder it instils and spectacle it exhibits reveal Cameron’s greatest strengths which allows us to overlook such slight problems. Cameron said that he wanted to evoke a similar sense of awe for the underwater that 2001: A Space Odyssey had for the arena of space exploration. For the most part, I’d say he succeeded admirably. There really is no other film like The Abyss; it deals with the underwater environment extremely convincingly, made so many breakthroughs with its production design and development of practical and digital effects and even manages to tell an exciting, compelling story in the middle of it.

I guess it remains rather odd that cinema has taken us to the far reaches of space so many times, but the amount of films that explore the ocean depths – a place that is actually on Earth – with such realism barely registers in comparison. The Abyss’s gruelling production has probably deterred a few studios, but until some other ballsy director plans on taking that dive again, we’ll always have The Abyss.

P.S. Given that The Abyss is a landmark film for numerous reasons, one question still looms: Why is it yet to be released on Blu Ray?

  • Liam Hathaway

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